Originally Published By:

China has introduced new rules banning non-official pilgrimages to Mecca, a move observers said was another attempt by the Communist Party to control religious affairs.

In rules issued on Monday for the Muslim pilgrimage, known as the haj, the State Administration for Religious Affairs said all such trips to Saudi Arabia must be arranged by the Islamic Association of China, an organization controlled by the party’s international outreach arm, the United Front Work Department.

Independent personal pilgrimages are not allowed.

“The association should educate haj attendees on patriotic and safe behavior, strengthen the management of attendees, and prevent the infiltration of religious extremist thinking and behavior that endangers national security,” the administration said in the rules.

Beijing has come under heavy international criticism for its suppression of religious activities in the far western region of Xinjiang.

Human rights groups estimate that more than 1 million Turkic-speaking Uygur people and other Muslim minorities have been held in internment camps and some subjected to forced labour. Beijing says the camps are vocational centres to combat extremism.

Nury Turkel, a Uygur-American rights advocate who serves on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that banning “illegal hajs” and allowing only official pilgrimages to Mecca had been a policy since 2005 but the new rules now specified how the Chinese authorities would select haj participants.

Only pilgrims who are “patriotic”, “law-abiding”, have “good behaviour” and can fund the trip on their own will be approved, according to the regulation.

“The measures impose a political test for Muslims who want to go on the pilgrimage. It is highly likely that the government discriminates against certain Muslim groups because of this political test – particularly Uygur Muslims, which is not a new phenomenon,” Turkel said.